The small town of Lovelock, Nevada, is nestled in brush-dotted hills that crouch under unending blue sky—an eerie desert landscape that sets a tone of creeping dread in Heather Young’s The Distant Dead.
Young, an Edgar Award nominee for her first book, 2016’s The Lost Girls, has crafted a story that begins with a horrific discovery and expands to explore the weight of familial obligation, the far-reaching devastation of drug addiction and the ways in which guilt and boredom can curdle into something much more sinister. And so: Sixth-grader Sal Prentiss goes to the fire station to report that he’s found a burned body while, in another part of town, social studies teacher Nora Wheaton is wondering why her colleague Adam Merkel hasn’t shown up to work. He’s a math teacher and it’s Pi Day—surely he wouldn’t miss the opportunity to have math-centric fun with his class? No one else seems very concerned, not least because the enigmatic Adam keeps to himself and doesn’t engage in gossip, but Nora can’t shake the feeling that something’s wrong. Alas, her instincts are validated when she learns that Adam is the victim.
It’s incomprehensible; what enemies could he possibly have? He’s been very kind to Sal, teaching the boy chess at lunchtime and helping him navigate a hard life with his taciturn uncles on an isolated ranch outside of town. Nora’s not confident the relatively inexperienced police will be able to solve the case, and she’s also been feeling unfulfilled, due to a dream deferred: she went to college for anthropology but left early to care for her argumentative alcoholic father. She decides to investigate Adam’s death, and Young shuttles the reader back and forth in time as she unfurls the characters’ relationships and life paths, with all their secrets and hopes and disappointments.
The suspense is slow and steady in this meditative, artistic take on the murder mystery—the author’s language is poetic, and her contemplation of the corrosiveness of suppressed emotion is both sympathetic and impatient: When will people learn? This is an unusual, compelling portrait of a people and a place where the future always seems impossibly far away.